What Flows Beneath: Another Big Grant for Water Sustainability

 A recharge pond in California

A recharge pond in California

It’s a clutch moment for groundwater management in California. Landmark legislation is prompting local governments to make improvements across the state. While reeling from years of drought conditions that may only just be easing, California is also bracing for future challenges in the face of climate change. 

A number of foundations have been looking at policy and market-based solutions to Western water woes these days, but there’s also a need for research on the topic. Some leading minds in this area are working at UC Santa Cruz, and the school recently landed close to a million dollars for its work, from California philanthropic heavyweight the Moore Foundation. 

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The huge global foundation, which runs programs funding conservation, research and health, along with targeted Bay Area funding, gave $854,000 to a team led by UCSC researchers Andrew Fisher, professor of Earth and planetary sciences, and Chad Saltikov, professor and chair of microbiology and environmental toxicology. 

Fisher is an expert on groundwater in California, having studied the issue for more than 20 years, while Saltikov is an authority on the microbial processes affecting environmental contaminants. For a couple years now, they’ve been researching how microbes in soil might affect water quality, and working with landowners in Northern California to establish strategic “recharge ponds” that collect stormwater to replenish aquifers. Earlier work has been funded by the EPA and the UC Water Security and Sustainability Research Initiative

They’ve previously been focused on finding the best locations and installing such ponds, and are currently coordinating with government agencies to offer rebates to the landowners managing them. Moore’s grant will extend the team’s work for three years as they evaluate their effectiveness, including how soil treatments might trigger microbial activity that would improve water supply and quality. 

It would be fascinating work in any context, but there’s a unique opportunity here to transform research directly into action, something science and conservation funders are generally enthusiastic about. In this case, it’s timed to the implementation of the historic Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which passed in 2014 requiring new local agencies statewide to better manage groundwater. California researchers have been contributing to the effort, including a report published last year that provided a framework for decision makers.

U.S. water management is also a hot issue right now in philanthropy, in terms of supply in the West, quality issues facing older East Coast cities, and pretty much everything in between. We’ve even seen the creation of a Water Funder Initiative with an initial emphasis on the West, and including some big philanthropic names in California, like the Packard, Hewlett, and Pisces foundations. 

While Moore is not a part of that collective, water issues in Northern California do click with some the foundation’s priorities. For example, it’s a major funder of science research, including a lot of work at California schools like UCSC. It also has a huge conservation program.

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Still, this is a fairly unique grant for the funder. It’s typically more interested in marine conservation and fisheries, and its science funding is usually a little more fundamental, with interests like quantum materials and astronomy. On the local front, Moore’s mostly dug into issues of land conservation around its Bay Area home base. 

So it will be interesting to see if this was just a great opportunity Moore couldn’t let pass, or if the foundation will be taking a broad interest in issues of water sustainability and drought down the line.